As instructors at High Trails, we play an integral role in the development of a newfound love and appreciation of nature in our students. While these young people are in our stead, we see evidence of this daily. But what happens once that bus pulls away and heads back to the city? What happens once cell phones are reunited with eager fingers? What happens as time goes on?
These are the questions that plague us. Did we really make a difference?
A couple of weeks ago, some High Trails instructors (including myself) were given some crucial insight into these questions. Alex, Mel, Brandon, Sam, Gaby, and I were invited to participate in a day program at Killian Elementary, a school with which we had all previously worked in the fall. Lee Austin, teacher and all around lover of children and science, was gracious enough to open his doors to us. This program was modified to fit into a single day, and included classes that our students had not been exposed to the first time. This was not only an opportunity for the students to learn and to grow further; this was an opportunity for us instructors to test our mettle in an entirely new setting. We were on their turf now.
Upon arriving at the Killian campus, we were immediately received with thankful regard. It was readily apparent that everybody was happy to be there, most of all – us. As we toured the campus, we were met by familiar faces, eager to be the first to greet their old instructors. A flood of salutations poured from the blacktop, as students darted around in their High Trails shirts. The high sun sent flashes of color through the beads strung around each student’s neck. The campus was filled with energy and laughter. It was truly special to see so many of my young friends again.
Other sounds were there as well – the sound of a basketball hitting the rim, and the hanging silence before rampant applause once it had gone in through the net. A neighboring household’s timed sprinkler ticking away like a clock. A distant siren wailing. We definitely weren’t in the San Bernardino Mountains anymore, but our stduents were happy and at home between the lines of the 4-square court. They gleefully chatted, and played until the school bell rang. Then, Mr. Austin took command of the entire courtyard as easily as if he were dealing with a single field group. He ushered all of the students into a large meeting room, and we followed suit.
Following a couple of classic repeat-after-me-songs, and some fun introductions, we received our student groups for the day. We dispersed amongst a small grass field, where numerous tents were set up. These were our outdoor classrooms for the day! We began by getting to know our new students, and reconnecting with our old students. Before long, we had unified our groups under a new identity, and we were off to the races. Classes consisted of important activities, and lecture material that served to contextualize our experiments. Students still had the opportunity to adopt plants, revel in the plight of hungry deer, and even bust smoke! As I bounced questions off of my group, it was a true pleasure to see that they had retained vital information gained during their time at High Trails Edwards site.
Throughout the day, our students continued their growth into budding scientists. As teachers, we were also given novel opportunities to test our abilities. Our Furry Friends segment was taught inside of an actual classroom. Mr. Austin’s room was a veritable shrine to the dedication he shows his students. Chairs and desks faced a giant whiteboard. Around the room were relics from past classes. Artwork and science experiments produced by our students lined the walls. Not an inch of uncovered space could be seen.
Above Mr. Austin’s desk, he proudly hung his collection of High Trails’ tree cookies. It was a truly humbling sight. Teaching within the classroom was a very different feeling from teaching amongst the trees. It wasn’t the most natural feeling at first, but as the class went on, and my students excitedly called out the characteristics of mammals, I quickly settled back into my role. The setting may have differed heavily from our normal classroom, but one constant grounded us. The infallible enthusiasm brought by our students. This energy connected both worlds with a strong thread.
The opportunity to revisit students—people that I truly cared for—was a special one. It gave me insight into many things in a short period of time. A huge part of my rhetoric as a teacher is the interconnected nature of all things. I try to share this holistic view of the world wherever I can. During our visit to Killian Elementary, I saw how connected things truly were. These students were unfazed by the task of adopting plants when their options were limited to grass and dandelions. They didn’t think twice about playing the role of deer in a blacktop habitat. They were simply excited to learn. Moreover, it was so rewarding to know that our young friends were still doing well, if not better than when they had left us.
One of the visiting High Trails’ instructors, Gaby, remarks, “The strongest feeling I felt during the whole experience was reconnecting with a student who had undergone a lot of health problems, who was now doing really well. We both felt such a strong connection and happiness to see each other doing so well.” This is a special brand of catharsis. Not many people are able to garner this level of closeness with another person in such a short period of time. We all love our students. But you aren’t truly aware of how potent that affection is until you see them again. Until you realize how happy that you are to see them, and see that elation returned in full.
The life of a High Trails instructor is a demanding one. It can be unforgiving at times. It can make you question yourself, and even doubt simple things. But know this…you are making a difference. By caring deeply, you create others who are capable of the same. On a blacktop somewhere, there is a young person who carries your lessons with them. This is a huge responsibility, but one that we should all be thankful to have. We have the ability to change the way that people look at the world, and in doing so we have the ability to change the world itself. Remember that.
Thanks for inviting us, Mr. Austin. The students at Killian were fortunate to have you. Now, go and enjoy retirement!
At High Trails Outdoor Science School, we literally force our instructors to write about elementary outdoor education, teaching outside, learning outside, our dirty classroom (the forest…gosh), environmental science, outdoor science, and all other tree hugging student and kid loving things that keep us engaged, passionate, driven, loving our job, digging our life, and spreading the word to anyone whose attention we can hold for long enough to actually make it through reading this entire sentence. Whew…. www.dirtyclassroom.com